Alcalá de Henares located in the community of Madrid, is a city that was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998 by its University and old town.
In the autonomous community of Madrid, just 30 kilometers to the north east of the capital of Spain, is a city that was deservedly declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998: Alcalá de Henares.
The name of the city means “palace over the Henares River”, although the city did not always have this name.
The history of Alcalá de Henares dates back to the Celtiberian age, when a settlement was founded here and given the curious name “Ikesanconkombouto”. After Rome’s conquest of Hispania, the relatively important city of Complutum was founded over the settlement –the adjective complutense is still used to refer to people and things related to Alcalá de Henares, as is the adjective alcaláino. The current name of the city comes from the Arab word for citadel. When the Arabs settled here, there was a citadel in the city that had depopulated over time until it ended up being reduced to a fortification. It began to prosper again in 1118 with the Castilian reconquista of the city which was centralized in a temple that is today’s Cathedral of los Santos Niños Justo y Pastor de Alcalá de Henares. The prestige and importance of Alcalá de Henares increased in the 12th century and over the following few centuries.
In 1499, a unique event would change the course of history in the city on the Henares River: Cardinal Cisneros founded the Universidad Complutense here, which quickly became an important institution in the culture of the renaissance. A cultural city grew around the university, converting Alcalá into a model city and the first college town.
The importance of the Spanish language is closely tied to Alcalá and its university, proof of which can be seen in the fact that this is the city that Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra was born in (1547). Cervantes is likely the most internationally known and admired Spanish language writer in the world and the author of the first modern novel: El Quijote.
Today, the Alcalá de Henares's old town is exquisitely preserved, earning the historic area and the university that it houses World Heritage Site accreditation from UNESCO in 1998. In the 19th century, during Spain’s desamortización period (a time when many church properties and possessions were confiscated), the university was moved to Madrid and given the name Universidad Complutense in honor of its place of origin. With the arrival of a new democratic political climate, in 1977 the Universidad de Alcalá opened its classrooms to students again, and now the university has nearly 30,000 students and 2,000 teachers. With its 35 different undergraduate degrees, along with its post graduate and training programs, the Universidad de Alcalá is one of the best universities in Spain.
The city of Alcalá de Henares however is not just its wonderful old town. Leaving the train or bus station and heading along calle Libreros and calle Mayor, visitors are impressed by the attractive monuments and public buildings that decorate the urban landscape all the way to the cathedral. As a town built around its historic university, the city is steeped in rich cultural heritage: the oldest corral de comedias (theatrical courtyard) in Europe is located here, which has remained open since 1601. A film festival is also held here as is la Semana Cervantina, the Cervantes Prize award ceremony, Semana Santa… Going out for tapas is also an essential experience in Alcalá (students on a limited budget are always economic-conscious diners) during the Ruta de las Tapas de Alcalá de Henares which is celebrated yearly at the end of spring.
Alcalá de Henares is the home of the Cervantes Institute, an institution that promotes the learning and teaching of the Spanish language around the world and grants official diplomas that certify the Spanish skills of non-native speakers.
If you are in Madrid, then taking a short half hour bus ride will give you the chance to see this haven of culture and history, which has remained surprisingly well preserved in an increasingly hectic and globalized world.
Photo by: mpeinadopa